Moves We Make 

In their guide, Lahiri, Mahmud, and Herron (2007) tell us that when it comes to writing papers in social anthropology and archaeology, the general principles of good expository writing — using and attributing sources appropriately, motivating and developing an argument, and crafting an effective organizational structure — still apply. However, there are a number of textual strategies that authors within anthropology use to engage with ideas and move them in new directions. The following section is excerpted and adapted from their guide.

This section lays out six ways in which anthropologists present new ideas in their writing. As you will see, some moves are particularly suited for the opening paragraphs of an essay; others for the body or conclusion. However, ultimately these moves are not conscripted to certain parts of a paper, for the conceptual work they accomplish may be required at any point in the argument.

The following list is not exhaustive nor strictly found in anthropological writing, but should help you recognize some fundamental stylistic moves common within the discipline.

❶ Establish Context

Readers glean meaning from your statements based on how you contextualize it.

Many of the same principles of reading in anthropology apply to writing in anthropology. In reading a text, you are interested in the text’s meaning in context as well as the usefulness of theory to understand social phenomena.

When you write a paper, you are producing your own text that will be read by an anthropological audience (whether your peers, your TF, or your professor) with those basic standards in mind.

  1. Contextualize your subject and your claims. You need to demonstrate your understanding of the topic by contextualizing it properly. Introduce the time, place, or topic you’re talking about briefly and refer back to the context when appropriate. Remember, anthropology is generally a grounded field, interested in paying attention to the specifics of peoples’ lives in particular times and places. If and when possible, link any broader arguments back to your field site or the phenomenon you’re talking about. 
  2. The choices you make about formatting and structuring your paper are choices about context. Think of your paper as a microcosm in which you, the author, create the context for all your sentences. Be mindful of where you place what. Remember, readers encounter every single statement in the context of your paper.

In other words, readers glean the meaning of each and every statement based on what comes before or after it in your paper in addition to things like parallelism, how much space you spend on each point, etc. 


❷ Enter a Conversation

Entering a conversation is a key way to establish a context and the motivation for your ideas. It entails letting the reader know which intellectual conversations you are taking part in, and what contribution you hope to make.

📎 Example

Consider the following example from Curtis Chan’s final paper for the sophomore tutorial: 

More than just a dance, b-boying is “performance,” to use a rather specific sense of a word that commonly evokes images of a stage or theater with choreographed lighting and sound. Richard Schechner, however, calls upon a broader notion of performance. Largely recognized as the founder of the academic, cross-disciplinary area of performance studies, Schechner writes that there is “no historically or culturally fixable limit to what is or is not ‘performance’” (2002:2). According to another performance theorist, Deborah Klens-Bigman, performance exists wherever an action is done for an audience, even if the audience is not before the performer but within the performer himself, By this notion, then, the way that b-boys walk, talk, and watch their fellow dancers is a performance.  

In this passage, Chan first readies his conceptual tools by distinguishing commonsense and specialist notions of “performance” and by assimilating the practice of b-boying to the latter sense of the term. Now he is ready to use his ethnographic data on b-boying as a point of entry into a conversation with key figures in performance studies.


❸ Borrow & Extend

Borrowing and extending is a fundamental part of how anthropologists engage social theory, since we like to move from theory to social life and back again creatively to produce grounded theory. 

📎 Examples

Jeff Leopando’s final essay for the sophomore tutorial includes this moment of borrowing and extending:

Charles W. Eliot, the President of Harvard during the early years of the Arnold Arboretum, wrote about it in one of his yearly reports:
[t]he natural woods and the systematic collections attract the attention of the greater part of these visitors chiefly for their beauty, which varies with the succession of the seasons; but there is a considerable number of visitors on foot who visit the Arboretum for study combined with enjoyment” (Eliot 1895:30).
His comment underscores a duality that has defined the Arboretum from its inception; it is a place that is at once “natural” and “systematic” a site for both the “enjoyment” and the “study” of nature.

Here, Leopando quotes Eliot not so much to borrow his ideas as to glean from his words an implicit theme that will play a prominent role in Leopando’s own analysis of the Arboretum, which is undertaken from an anthropological perspective.

In a still more complex instance of borrowing and extending, Michael Herzfeld draws upon the work of Paul Willis to explain a counterintuitive finding of his own: the fact that in training apprentices to become skilled and highly valued artisans, instructors in Greek craft institutes inadvertently reinforce their own as well as their students’ sense of being working class and undervalued.

In the following passage taken from The Body Impolitic, Herzfeld describes similarities and differences between Willis’ approach and his own:

These are also questions that Willis has asked, but asking them in the Greek context reorients the investigation to larger patterns of [global] domination... In asking questions to similar to those Willis posed about the self-reproduction of working class culture in Britain, I have instead chosen to explore these matters among artisan-instructors who are reproducing their own sense of inhabited class identity, and who are also reproducing a sense of regional and national humiliation. 

❹ Establish Authority

One of the key ways to make an argument about the usefulness of a particular set of theories to the phenomenon you're looking at in the field or in the literature is to establish yourself as someone in a position to make judgments. 

Anthropologists employ a diverse range of textual strategies to establish themselves as credible authorities on their respective subjects. These strategies include displaying a command of the relevant scholarship, explaining one’s own positioning vis-à-vis the subjects of one’s research, or piggybacking upon another scholar’s previously established authority. But perhaps the most distinctively anthropological technique for establishing authority consists of describing and elaborating upon unique observations made in the field.

📎 Example

We provide one example of this move from Yemen Chronicle, by Steven Caton: 

I assumed at the time that there was such a thing as an “authentic” tribal poetry, whose heart beat in a rural and seemingly remote setting such as Khawlan al-Tiyal and not in a complex urban setting such as Sana’a (where later I fact I would study the works of many tribal poets, who had migrated from Yemen’s drought-stricken countryside to enlist in the army or become taxi drivers or private security guards). But after only six months, I realized how simplistic that assumption was. The urban-rural dichotomy and the cultural dichotomy of tribal-nontribal, not to speak of the political one of state-nonstate were, if not exactly wrong, then misleading. .For example, the “hottest” tribal poet in Yemen in 1979, Muhamman al-Gharsi, whose cassette tapes sold out before everyone else’s in the stereo stores, had his main residence in Sana’a, where he was in the army. 

At first glance, acknowledging the shortcomings of one’s initial notions might seem like an unlikely way to establish authority. Yet it is precisely by showing how and why he was forced to set aside specific preconcep-tions that Caton demonstrates the robust and authentic nature of his field research.

Such moments of narrative disclosure often work subtly in a longer ethnographic work to lend credibility to analytical claims advanced further down the line. Incidentally, this passage also illustrates a common device in anthropological writing: the use of a “lightbulb moment” to succinctly evoke an incremental process of discovery. Here, Caton uses the example of the urban tribal poet of Sana’a to show the reader why he was forced to rethink the relationship between rurality and tribal poetry, thereby condensing a six-month-long process into a few short phrases. 


❺ Step Back

This move is often (but by no means always) flagged by phrases such as “In sum, I argue that...” or “in this paper, I have examined...”

📎 Example

Here we take up a passage from Jeff Leopando’s paper on the Arnold Arboretum, where stepping back is conjoined with another move, namely countering

Arnold Arboretum offers an interesting case for analysis because, in contrast to many other natural spaces that anthropologists have studied, it is a site where the myths of “wilderness” and “ahistorical” nature are dispelled rather than reproduced. At the Arboretum, nature is presented as domesticated rather than wild, and deeply intertwined with human history rather than divorced from it. 

Here, Leopando steps back from his subject to situate it in a body of literature on the anthropology of the environment (“natural spaces that anthropologists have studied”) that deals specifically with how cultural artifacts elaborate ideas of nature. He also reiterates the significance of his case study, which challenges (i.e. counters) some of this literature’s central ideas.


Stepping back may also take the form of qualifying, in which an author acknowledges the limits of his or her claims (e.g., “I do not mean to imply that...” or “I am not suggesting...”). These qualifications are not copouts but positive statements that help define the overall scope and significance of what the writer has accomplished.

Consider the final example in our discussion, a passage taken from an article by Larry Hirschfeld: 

Systems of racial thinking vary considerably across cultures and historic time. My proposal neither denies this variability nor implies that it is trivial. Nor am I suggesting that racial thinking is impervious to the cultural and political environments. Indeed, racial thinking is literally unthinkable in the absence of such environments. Something, and typically it is a system of cultural belief, channels an abstract set of expectations about human difference onto a specific range of differences and a specific way to viewing them. 

Here Hirschfeld qualifies the scope of his argument by anticipating two likely misinterpretations of his ideas and denying that these are in fact implications of his argument. In this way, he clarifies the relationship of his argument to widely held anthropological views on race. 


❻ Counter

Countering is another move that anthropologists employ in writing. Countering often takes the form of denaturalizing commonplace assumptions.

📎 Examples

Let’s return to Curtis Chan’s paper on b-boying to see how he counters views expressed by some gender theorists: 

Senelick puts forth Marianne Wex’s contention that gender is not natural or biological but rather historical. He writes, “Centuries of social pressure... have frozen men and women into these physical classifiers of gender” (1992:22). But even this statement seems to indicate that notions of gender and by extension of manhood and masculinity are “frozen,” static, and uniform across the world, whereas in fact they are none of these things. In speaking of “masculinity,” one must not assume that it is a singular thing, but rather that there are multiple masculinities and even multiple performative manifestations of these masculinities. 

Kimberly Theidon employs this common and effective strategy of anthropological writing in the following excerpt from a published article: 

I argue that although survival may be less dramatic than armed struggle, an analysis of the domestic economy of war reveals the extent to which survival in itself becomes a daily struggle... As the members of the mother’s club in Purus related, “We were so sad because we could not feed our children well. Our children cried for food, and it is the mother who must do something.” What the interviews with these women underscore is the implicit acknowledgment of women’s central role not only in production but also in social reproduction — both threatened during the war, putting mere survival in doubt. 

By denaturalizing and countering commonsense notions of struggle, Theidon advances her argument that Peruvian peasants caught up in civil-military conflicts understood “war” not just as armed combat but as a comprehensive struggle for survival.

Incidentally, this countering move itself rests upon another, implicit move of establishing authority: the reader will accept Theidon’s conclusions only if she finds Theidon’s original interview data and interpretations credible. 


Text on this page adapted from
Lahiri, Smita; Mahmud, Lilith; and Herron, James. 2010.
A Student’s Guide to Reading and Writing in Social Anthropology.
Cambridge, MA: Harvard College.